FOOD BANK — Shoni Evans takes stock of the community donations in the Nome food bank, on Monday, February 27.

SNAP crisis leaves Bering Strait region in need of food

By Megan Gannon
This past Monday afternoon, the “Open” flag was hanging outside the Nome Community Center’s Food Bank. Shoni Evans and Doris Angusuc were inside, ready to serve families in need of cereal, frozen meat, canned goods, bread and other staples. They’ve expanded the hours of the pantry in response to a statewide crisis in the delivery of SNAP benefits.
“Two weeks ago we changed the hours from once a week to twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said Evans. “And we used to open at 5:30. Now we open at 5.” They decided to open this past Monday, too, in anticipation of Tuesday’s blizzard.
“Last week, we had to cancel one day because of the storm, and so we’re trying to work around the storms,” Evans said.
It’s important that they’re available as much as possible because they’ve seen a major increase in demand. Almost everyone who comes in has said they’re turning to the local food bank because they’re not getting their state SNAP benefits. “Right now, we’re seeing the ones that have been waiting for quite a while,” Angusuc said.
For months now, the state has been dealing with a major backlog in processing and recertifying thousands of Alaskans’ federally funded SNAP benefits.
“I really hope that [the state] can get this under some kind of control because there’s a lot of people that are struggling right now,” Evans said.
NCC’s food bank is still in need of community donations, Evans and Angusuc said. Items that seem to be in high demand are cereal, canned fruit and vegetables, meat and menstrual hygiene products.  
Before the crisis, NCC’s food bank would probably see about 15 individuals walk in each week. Now 50 to 60 people are coming weekly. Angusuc said they’ve been receiving more calls and tips about families who might be in need. They’ve also been watching social media. If someone is posting about having to decide between paying rent or buying food, they’ll reach out to make sure that person is taking advantage of the food bank. But NCC’s offerings are no replacement for a SNAP allowance, which could be up to $545 for an individual each month in Nome.
“There really isn’t much of a comparison in the amount of food that they’re able to receive,” said Ron Meehan, the policy and advocacy manager of the Food Bank of Alaska, an organization that works with NCC. “SNAP actually provides more than 10 times the amount of food as the Feeding America National Network. We don’t have the exact number for Alaska, but I would guess that it’s actually much higher than that.”
SNAP additionally provides people with more choices than food banks and helps support local economies, Meehan said, noting that in fiscal year 2022, Alaska received more than $350 million through SNAP benefits.
“It’s a really, really substantial economic engine, particularly in rural communities,” Meehan said. “[The backlog] has had an enormous impact on local stores and businesses, too, so much so that many of them are having difficulty keeping food on their shelves because so many of their clients rely on SNAP to purchase food.”
On Monday the state government announced a list of solutions to provide relief to the backlog crisis. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration said it will give $1.68 million to the Food Bank of Alaska and its partners to help distribute food in the short-term. It will also automatically roll SNAP benefits for Alaskans whose benefits were scheduled to be recertified for eligibility in February, March, and April 2023.
The state has additionally committed to hiring and onboarding additional staff to fill new and vacant positions, while hiring contractors for the short-term, especially to staff the virtual call center. In the long-term, Dunleavy announced a $54 million addition to the capital budget to upgrade the state’s technologically outdated eligibility enrollment system. Monday’s announcement said that starting in July 2023, Alaska is aiming to change the SNAP certification period from six months to 12 months. And by the end of the year, the state aims to launch an online SNAP application.
“These immediate actions, including assistance to the state’s food banks, is to make sure Alaskans can bridge the gap and know what to expect,” said Gov. Dunleavy. “This support will help stock the pantries of Alaskans while the SNAP recertifications are being processed.”
Sara Lizak, Kawerak’s vocational rehabilitation and welfare services director, noted that those funds might not reach smaller villages that are also struggling.
“That’s great that there is this amount of money being put towards the food banks, but people need to keep in mind that there are not food banks in every community,” said Lizak.
Kawerak’s general assistance program to help tribal members has seen a 200 percent increase in applications in just the last three months, Lizak said, and many of those came from families with children, which is “not our typical applicant.”
“I think people are running out of their food they were trying to make stretch,” she said. “No one should be hospitalized for malnutrition, especially this day and age.”
Lizak was referring to a report that a few Elders from Stebbins had been hospitalized with malnutrition. Many people in Stebbins are dependent on SNAP benefits. On top of the current backlog crisis, ex-typhoon Merbok destroyed subsistence harvests at coastal camps and a fire leveled the village’s only grocery store. In a recent letter that she wrote to FEMA and shared with the Nugget, Daisy Lockwood-Katcheak, the city administrator of Stebbins, said she worried that people were not getting the daily nutrition that every person needs to stay healthy. She listed other complicating factors: The makeshift store that Stebbins set up is not as fully stocked as the store that burned, and food items are often rotten, wilted or thawed and refrozen by the time they get to Stebbins because of its remote location. There is another grocery store 10 miles away in St. Michael, for those who have a vehicle to get there, but groceries have also just gotten more expensive.
“What makes it even more difficult to acquire the nutritional food available at St. Michael ACCO company is the mere fact that all their prices went up by $5.00 or more on all items,” Katcheak wrote. “We noticed the trend after the September storm. This makes it even more difficult for the mothers to make choices that affect their baby’s and family’s nutrition.”
Stebbins recently signed an agreement with the Food Bank of Alaska under The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. But Meehan said this deal comes at a bad time. A “perfect storm” of factors—including a decline in COVID relief funding—has meant that the TEFAP program itself has a lot less resources.
“The USDA, which operates the program, has had a lot of difficulty meeting food purchase orders,” Meehan said. “What it means is that there’s less food to go around.”
“We’re seeing an increase in demand particularly with the SNAP backlog, but even before that, there are a lot of families that are struggling because of rising costs, inflation and supply chain disruption” he said. “What we’ve seen is there’s a decline in COVID relief funds at the same time that, economically, families are still in a very challenging position.”

Alaska’s Department of Health administers SNAP benefits through the Division of Public Assistance, DPA for short. Workers from the division recently held a rally in Juneau asking for better benefits, staffing and working conditions that would help the DPA retain employees.
Jody Morris, a longtime eligibility technician and steward with the Alaska State Employees Association/AFSCME Local 52 union, said morale has been low among state workers who are working in understaffed departments. About half of the eligibility techs with the DPA had to spend their days answering calls for the virtual call center, Morris said. That phone line, which went live in April 2021, has been plagued with long wait times, receiving 1,000-1,500 calls per day. And most of the time, the eligibility techs couldn’t provide answers for callers, other than telling them their case was due to be processed, Morris said.
“That was causing a lot of eligibility technicians to leave,” she said. “They’re being stuck on the phone three weeks at a time, being yelled at, being screamed at, cussed at. It’s not a happy environment.”
Morris said there has always been a backlog of SNAP applications, but this is the worst backlog she’s ever seen. She traced the current crisis back to when the commissioner of the Department of Health decided to eliminate 129 positions over two years ago.
“The snowball was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, because they didn’t replace the people that left,” she said. “I’m happy to hear that the governor has decided we’re gonna hire more eligibility technicians, but it’s not going to solve the problem right away. You won’t see a good turn around for at least six months to a year because there’s so much to learn.”
A new eligibility technician might need up to two years to get a firm grasp of the job, she said, because of all the federal and state laws and regulations that go into processing these benefits cases.
“Those that have been with DPA for so long, they are very passionate about what they’re doing and want to help Alaskans,” said Morris. “We know that the individuals who are seeking out help are in need, and we want to help them.”


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